Friday, March 3, 2017

Review: Nibbled By an Alien

By Michael Block

So much happens in Ken Urban’s Nibbler. So much! So much so that you start to wonder what else Urban is going to throw at you. Presented by The Amoralists in association with Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, Nibbler is a nostalgia drenched twisted comedy that brings you Jersey diners, teenage hormones, and alt rock music set in a pre-Bill Clinton presidency world. Oh and aliens. There is an alien. Confused? You should be.
Set in the year of 1992, a time where life may or may not have been simpler, five high school seniors contemplate life post graduation and their inner sexual stirrings as they soon realize it’s time to grow up. As the days of summer creep by, the kids hand around the Medford Diner and playground until one night they see this eerie green glow coming from above. Aliens? Yep. Up until this point, Nibbler lived in a world of realism. From this point forward, it’s anything but. It appears that the alien touches those who lust in order to find the release within. Matt turns into a raging Republican. Hayley becomes a slutty Stepford wife. Matt leaps out of the closet. And Tara, after her affair with married town cop Dan, finds a newfound free spirit. But that leaves Adam. The one who’s been through it all already. To set up the chaos that happens within Nibbler, Ken Urban begins with Adam in his old room as Tara bursts in through his bedroom window on their way to a reunion of sorts. It sets up a memory play. Or is it? Through the eyes of Adam, he recounts the past when they were all together for the last time. Was there really an alien? Did he, and the rest of the friends, break out into song at the diner? The finale of the show talks about the story he shared being his memory, his artistic license. And it’s the only way to justify a story like this. If this ending gave you flashbacks to PTSD of entertainment endings where you learned it was all a dream or it was all in the snow globe or whatever the hell happened on “Lost,” you wouldn’t be alone. In a sense, it feels cheap. It forces you to ponder whether the ninety previous minutes were essential. If you’re going to go bold, own it. Urban is an incredible author. His characters are raw, some dilapidated. His ability to comment on the present through the lens of the past is remarkable. There’s a sense of urgency in this world of nothingness. But it all gets lost when the end feels like an unfunny punch line. There are moments in the piece where things get a bit gratuitous. Nudity for nudity’s sake can be chalked up to taste but it didn’t necessarily add anything to the overall arc or individual narratives.
photo by Russ Rowland
There seemed to be an aura of uncertainty that floated overhead. Director Benjamin Kamine’s wavering tone may have been a strong factor in it. At times, Nibbler played like bad sketch comedy. Other times it lived in campy horror. And some explored deep and dark drama. Even with the ending as a justification, there never seemed to be a deliberate reason behind it. When it came to staging, Kamine was limited due to space provided by Anshuman Bhatia’s set but Kamine did overcome the roadblocks. Though, shoving three in a single side of a diner booth was excessive. There was a distinct style in 90s fashion that was present in Lux Haac’s costume design. Call it from grunge to preppy. Even without the context clues, the costumes sold the show and sold the characters.
Embodying Urban’s ragtag lot of lovable losers provided fun for this ensemble. It keeps going back to justification and how the memory device works in this play but when you placed the five teens next to one another, one of these things was not like the other. Believability was a stretch for James Kautz as Adam. But it certainly can be justified. Kautz as a performer is dominating. He gave Adam a brooding persona as the guy who’s stuck. He was the voice of reason in a way. But next to the rest of the kids, he lived in another play. When it came to bravado and big performance, Spencer Davis Milford as Matt stole the show. The Republican leaning Matt was confident and Milford added a spark of pizzazz to his gusto. As the kid bursting out of the closet, Sean Patrick Monahan as Pete captures the sincerity of a gay teen in a time where being flamboyant was not cool yet. When the alien gave him permission to be true to himself, Monahan tapped into a Jack McFarland panache, though the reference is a little ahead of its time. Rachel Franco as Tara 1.0 was stellar. Franco’s perspective on the girl with a dream to get out of Medford was something that was beyond relatable. Trading in a world of little aspirations for an Ivy League life, Franco’s Tara had a clear cut objective. But when you throw Officer Dan into the mix, played with a cartoonish flair by Matthew Lawler, Tara 2.0 didn’t go anywhere. There was no large change like the other three had experienced. Whether it was a flaw in the character or performance, it was a let down. Elizabeth Lail as Hayley seemed to experience some of the consistency woes like Franco when it came to the change in character. That being said, the first half of Lail’s Hayley 2.0 was hilarious next to Milford’s Matt.
If you’re looking for the next “Stranger Things,” it’s not here. The wood paneling and sci-fi elements may remind you of it, but this isn’t it. If you’re ok with theater that’s a little bit weird and out of the box, you might want to give Nibbler a try. No matter what, Ken Urban is one of contemporary theater’s strongest voices today.